First African-American Woman To Don Coast Guard Uniform
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
February 22, 2020
In wartime, men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard have fought for the freedoms we hold dear. But this holds true not only against external enemies who threaten our way of life, but also less visible forces within American society that have denied rights and freedoms to its citizens. This problem has been experienced first-hand by American minorities, many of whom fought our enemies on one hand while struggling against institutionalized discrimination on the other.
Such was the case with Olivia Juliette Hooker, the first African-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform 75 years ago. Born in 1915, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Olivia Hooker was six years old when the Klu Klux Klan burned her father’s clothing store in the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. Her family survived the riots, but Hooker’s father sought a community where his children could live without fear of violence.
September 9, 2013 - Olivia Hooker (98) recalls her experiences as one of the first African American female members in the Coast Guard SPAR program during World War II. Hooker is a native of White Plains, NY and recieved her Doctorate as a school psychologist. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ali Flockerzi)
Hooker’s family moved to Topeka, Kansas, and then Columbus, Ohio, where she graduated from high school in 1937. Hooker went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education at The Ohio State University. For the next few years, she taught third grade at the old Garfield Elementary School in Columbus.
Meanwhile, World War II was raging. During the war, there existed a number of female military corps, including the Army’s WACs, Navy’s WAVEs, and Coast Guard’s SPARs (acronym for Semper Paratus“Always Ready”). In October 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered these female military corps opened to minority enlistment. African-American leaders, such as Beulah Whitby, president of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, hailed the president’s order stating, “This order from the commander-in-chief that opens the auxiliary services of the Navy to Negro women is a beach-head in the battle for democracy.”
By the time the U.S. military opened enlistment to minority women, Hooker had nearly reached the age of 30. However, even though she had experienced discrimination and racial violence in her own country, she made up her mind to support the nation’s war effort and enlist. Hooker first tried to join the WAVE’s, but the Navy rejected her application.
Early in 1945, she applied to the Coast Guard and the Service accepted her for enlistment. On February 17, 1945, just a few days after her 30th birthday, Hooker was sworn-in as a member of the SPARs.
That same day, Lieutenant Margaret Tighe at the Columbus, Ohio, recruiting office wrote...
It was not easy for Miss Hooker to take the step of enlistment. She is the first Negro woman to be accepted by the SPARS, and is in full realization of this fact. She feels a sincere desire to serve and further feels that she is opening a field for the young women of her own race.
She is to be admired for her initiative and courage. Solely on the basis of qualifications, Miss Hooker is one of the outstanding young women ever accepted for the SPARs and it is a pleasure to recommend her.
Hooker had become the first African-American woman to wear a Coast Guard uniform.
In early March, Hooker reported to the Coast Guard’s Manhattan Beach Training Center in New York to begin boot camp. For six weeks, Hooker rose every morning at 5:00 a.m. and exercised for an hour before breakfast. Each day of training included chores, physical training and classes.She completed basic training in April and, for nine more weeks, she attended the Coast Guard’s yeoman school at Manhattan Beach.
After completing her training, Yeoman 3rd class Hooker received orders to Coast Guard Personnel Separation Center #1 located in Boston. While there, she spent most of her time preparing discharges for the numerous Coast Guardsmen returning home from the war and re-joining civilian life. In 1994, Hooker recounted to a Coast Guard public affairs specialist her processing an 18-year-old out of the Service. She recalled the young man describing coming under heavy fire during the D-Day landings and, for hours, taking cover under a pile of dead bodies. Hooker commented, “He made the war seem very real to me.”
A candid photograph captured on board a cutter by Coast Guard public affairs specialist in 1945. (Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)
By mid-1946, most wartime Coast Guardsmen had been processed out of the Service. The Coast Guard disbanded the SPARs and Hooker processed her own discharge papers while still serving at Boston. Using her GI Bill benefits, she earned a masters degree in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester. By the early 1960s, Hooker had begun a career as a psychologist and professor of psychology at New York’s Fordham University. She also served as a member of the Kennedy Child Study Center in the Bronx. In 2002, she retired at the age of 87 after a long career in education and mental health care.
Throughout her life, Olivia Hooker was a leader in civic, community, cultural and educational organizations, including the NAACP, her local White Plains Child Daycare Association, Westchester Visiting Nurse Services, and several other organizations. She also served as a consultant on minority issues at Fordham University and as youth counselor and certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. In 2014, Dr. Hooker expressed her own philosophy of service to others: “It’s not about you or me; it’s about what we can give to this world.”
Dr. Olivia J. Hooker was a pioneer in the history of women and minorities in the Coast Guard and the nation. She believed that her military service taught her “a lot about order and priorities” and “how to better form relationships, and how to deal with people without bias and prejudice.” Despite experiencing hatred and racism in her own life, she devoted her life and her career to serving the needs of her community and her nation.
Dr. Hooker passed away in 2018 at the age of 103. She was a trailblazing member of the long blue line and a remarkable example of the Service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.
She will be honored as the namesake of a Fast Response Cutter.
Video > Olivia Hooker's WWII SPARS Story
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